Warning: Instructions not included

Sex on Tuesday

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No one really teaches you how to have sex.

Sure, some states have mediocre sexual education programs with condom-on-banana demonstrations. Some people have older, more experienced friends willing to explain the nitty-gritty. But at best, these sources are incomplete, and they reflect the priorities and experiences of the teacher, not the student.

When we begin having sex, the amount we don’t know can be overwhelming, even if we’re often too aroused or exhilarated to care very much. But because sex is like Ikea furniture — where we have to put the thing together from scratch — it can be frustrating or worrisome not to have any instructions. 

Though I’m no better than other sources, let me help. Here’s my guide to avoiding self-consciousness or worry when you’re starting out.

First, mechanical problems are inevitable. There will be times (often beyond your control) when arousal fails to produce an erection; this is by no means permanent and is nothing to be embarrassed about. Similarly, vaginas do not always successfully self-lubricate. None of these mechanical snafus are abnormal. It happens to everyone. My advice, as always, is to double-check your emotional state, see if you’re emotionally and physically aroused, and make sure the pressure is off. Nothing ruins sex like stress and pressure.

Second, for as long as I can remember, friends of mine have worried about oral sex. Yes, oral sex is complicated, but it’s not insurmountably hard. If you got into UC Berkeley, you can master oral sex, I promise. Your first step should be to ask your partner if they know what they like. If they haven’t had past partners or haven’t masturbated enough to know, then their job is to be patient while the two of you determine what’s good. If they do know, go for it (insofar as you feel comfortable). If your partner is lousy at oral sex and — perhaps secretly — you would rather they stopped temporarily than keep trying, be gentle with them. Pretend they did a great job and you just want to do something else. There can be a next time. In general, my advice for oral sex is to approach it with all the sincere enthusiasm you can muster without also being rough or aggressive about it (unless your partner’s into that).

Third, you should under no circumstances have other people’s ideal sex. Do what you want. If you’re concerned your preferences are too “vanilla” or too extreme, don’t worry. Sexual desire can only be considered “too much” of something to the extent that it’s out of sync with your partner’s desires. The big challenge of long-term sexual relationships is making sure your sexual interests match well. If they do, then there’s nothing wrong with what you want; if they don’t, then that’s still true, but you might be happier with a different partner. If you have kinks you think are really unusual, great — you just need to find someone who likes what you like rather than trying to fit your desires into someone else’s box.

Fourth, communicate. I get it: Few things can feel more intimidating than asking someone how to better stimulate their anatomy. But there’s always a way to spin your question. For one thing, if you really love someone, consider how flattered they might be to see how much you care about doing a good job. Some people will also be relieved at the opportunity to give you a little feedback on your technique. If you’re hooking up with someone for the first (or only) time, you can always open with “Tell me what you want me to do. Be specific.” At worst, this prompt might mean you have to decline an instruction you’re not OK with, but if you think you and your partner have similar boundaries or desires, it should be a pretty good fit. Even with long-term partners you love and trust, everyone has to learn how to say “No.” There will always be something you don’t really want: in life as in sex. “No” is a powerful word, and it’s yours; use it, and respect it.

Finally, sex is hard. Media obscures this fact, but it’s true. It is truly rare to have sex where both partners have the opportunity to climax, feel valued and satisfied, and at no point experience (undesired) pain or discomfort. I think that’s awful, and I hope your relationships can be above average on all of those counts. It’s worth noting, though, that really good sex takes work. If someone has been sick or tired recently, or either partner is stressed or distracted, or you’re feeling slightly self-conscious about your body that day, or you have cramps, or … You get the picture. Life doesn’t make sex simple. We have to put in real effort to make sure we have good sex. I’m sorry it’s not easier, but hopefully, recognizing the innate challenge of sex helps you relax if you were worried you weren’t good at it. Lots of people aren’t.

So although sex doesn’t come with instructions, you’ll be well-prepared if you know that mechanical issues happen, oral sex takes practice, all sex takes practice, your desires aren’t wrong and communication makes the world go round. Some assembly required.

Aidan Bassett writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact him at [email protected].